Skye Jethani: Reducing Jesus from Lord to label
Critiques of consumerism usually focus on the dangers of idolatry–the temptation to make material goods the center of life rather than God. But this misses the real threat consumerism poses. As contingent beings we must consume resources to survive. The problem is not consuming to live, but rather living to consume.
We find ourselves in a culture that defines our relationships and actions primarily through a matrix of consumption. As the philosopher Baudrillard explains, “Consumption is a system of meaning.” We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase and how useful they are to us. One’s identity is now constructed by the clothes you wear, the vehicle you drive, and the music on your iPod. In short, you are what you consume.
When this understanding of the world and self is brought into Christian faith, two very damaging things occur. First, consumerism reduces God from a deity to a commodity. His value, like everything else, is determined by His usefulness to the user (i.e. the Christian). In consumerism, personal desires and their fulfillment are paramount, therefore everything and everyone– including God–exists to satisfy these cravings. This is precisely the opposite of what Scripture teaches. We are called to live in submission to God and walk humbly with Him. Consumerism, however, reduces God so that He becomes a means to an end. He is presented as a useful tool that supplies us with our desires and expectations. As one sociologist noted, in our consumer culture we have come to view God as part cosmic therapist and part divine butler.
Secondly, consumerism reduces Jesus Christ from Lord to a label. When the early Christians declared “Christ is Lord” they were subverting the popular belief of the day that “Caesar is Lord.” It was a proclamation of Jesus’ authority and power over all things, and it was a declaration of allegiance to our heavenly King.
But in consumerism the customer is king, not Jesus. As a result Christianity becomes just one more brand we integrate and display along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express our identity. So Christians no longer carry an expectation of obedience and allegiance to Christ, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences–music, books, t-shirts, conferences, and jewelry. And rather than living out the values and ethics of the Kingdom of God, we share the values of our consumer culture while our identity as Christians remains a veneer.
Ultimately the powerful influence of consumerism in our contemporary culture forces us to ask hard questions about our faith. Are we truly seeking a life with God? Or are we simply trying to use Him? And is our allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom? Or is “Christian” simply a label we identify with but with no real impact on our lives or behaviors? And as we pursue the mission of the Gospel, are we presenting Jesus Christ as the goal and treasure of life? Or is He being packaged and sold as a commodity to help consumers achieve lesser desires?